Inside Track: Drive for change fuels Ley
Wanting more out of life, Better Drinking Culture CEO immersed himself in beer culture to help him land current job.
In late 2014, Jason Ley began to think about how he wanted to die.
Ley was with the Grand Rapids audio/visual company LiveSpace while his grandmother was nearing her death, and he realized he wanted more out of his life. Despite never having any specific career goals or aspirations, he said he always had a cliché drive to change the world.
“I realized I just couldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Ley said. “I knew my grandmother’s end was approaching, so I started thinking about what I wanted to say I had accomplished when I was on my deathbed.”
None of Ley’s thoughts led him to a corporate job or material possessions. Three years later, Ley buried his grandmother, took an unorthodox career detour and, earlier this year, started his newest career endeavor as CEO of Better Drinking Culture (BDC), an organization started by Cam Brieden to promote healthy drinking habits.
His position is a long way from any career he could have imagined growing up in Pontiac with his mother’s family, as his father left when he was 3 years old.
Ley’s mother, two uncles and grandparents all retired from the General Motors assembly line, and he was the first person in his family to graduate from college when he walked across the stage at Michigan State University in 2001.
Through two moves, first to Defiance, Ohio, heading into ninth grade, and back to Michigan in Waterford, prior to 10th grade, Ley lost his bearings in life and turned to heavy metal for comfort.
“I was really cynical about life,” Ley said.
It wasn’t until senior year of high school he found some guidance for a potential career when an English teacher “cut through all the (crap)” and inspired Ley to harness creativity. The teacher was why Ley ended up with a degree from MSU in education and teaching certificate.
Following graduation, however, Ley couldn’t find a teaching gig, so he kept the job he had all through college at bd’s Mongolian Grill for another year.
Eventually, he turned to a job as national sales account executive at Alternative Press, a music magazine based in Cleveland.
“That was the last time I thought about being a teacher,” said Ley, who spent two years in Cleveland. “I was also going through the darkest days of my life. I never really connected with anyone in Cleveland but got sucked into all the perks of the industry, and I started drinking a lot.”
Making little money and racking up credit card debt, Ley said he was in a downward spiral when he decided to move home when his younger brother had a son.
“That was a beacon of light,” he said. “I recognized through some ugly nights that I don’t know what it means to be an uncle, but if there’s anything positive that will pull me out of this, that little boy is going to.”
He moved back to Michigan and in with his brother, whose fiancé left him shortly following, and who helped him learn fatherhood. He then started a job as an ad executive at the Detroit Free Press. He hated the job, but it paid the bills. Eventually, however, the Free Press entered into a partnership with the Tribune Company to launch Metromix.com, and Ley was part of a team to launch the site as the marketing and promotions coordinator.
“I was able to salvage prior experience from jobs I hated to connect the dots and put it to work,” Ley said. “I got to conceptualize and throw super awesome parties in the city.”
Those parties kept his nights and weekends full, but he still was able to meet his future wife, Katherine, in 2008 when throwing a surprise party for a colleague. He invited the colleague’s girlfriend and asked her to invite a friend that was “single, educated and didn’t have any baggage.”
“I totally got what I asked for,” Ley said of his wife, who was a teacher in Sparta.
Because of his demanding work schedule, if they wanted to see each other, she would have to go to Detroit. His job did allow for a glamorous dating life, he said, and he proposed in January 2009. Between the proposal and their wedding in July 2010, Katherine looked for jobs on the east side of the state, but she couldn’t find anything.
“We had to figure something out,” Ley said. “The nation was going through the housing crash, (former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick) was destroying Detroit. There was not a teaching job for her anywhere on the east side. She busted her (butt) trying to find a job, but I am so thankful she didn’t.”
He moved to Grand Rapids but stayed flexible in his options and found a job as general manager of the nightclubs in The B.O.B. Terrible hours kept him from seeing his wife regularly for two-and-a-half years. During his days off, he explored the budding beer scene and found out how much he enjoyed it.
In summer 2012, LiveSpace, which he hired at The B.O.B, essentially poached Ley.
He left LiveSpace in March 2016, following his pondering of life direction, and integrated himself in the beer scene. Prior to leaving LiveSpace, he told himself he would only say yes to things involving beer, writing, travel and music.
“If I wanted different results, I needed to put forth a different effort,” he said.
He filmed a pilot episode of a documentary TV series, called Modern Ahabs, about the search for hard-to-get beers, which has since been nominated for an Emmy. He was deliberately unemployed for four months before being hired as assistant general manager at Grand Rapids Brewing Co. in May 2016.
In September, he received an email from Brieden. They met for lunch twice, hitting it off and sharing deep stories about life.
“I find out Cam has never drank and he’s got a very personal story about why, and I told him why I still drink but have always struggled with my relationship with alcohol,” Ley said.
Through the lunches, they shared ideas, and Ley found out Brieden’s grand vision for the organization. During the second lunch, Ley broke down crying when he shared a particularly difficult memory about his relationship with alcohol. As he wiped his eyes, Brieden offered him the job as CEO of BDC.
“I cried a little bit more, but without hesitation said absolutely,” Ley said. “I wasn’t really able to process what that meant, but I knew I was finally passionate about something that was personally significant to me. It was one I could move the needle and change the world.”
As Brieden lined up the position with the organization’s investors, Ley finished his time at GRBC before starting at BDC in January. Now, the organization is working on a revamped certification program, a book and a documentary.
“Our mission is to change the world’s relationship with alcohol, that’s not a small task,” Ley said. “Change doesn’t happen going with the grain. BDC is unique from every other attempt that’s been made to curb problem drinking; we’re not anti-alcohol, we’re not created by system or industry, we’re not created by a brand, we are the consumer.
“We’re talking to people at their level and giving them a platform to feel empowered to make healthier decisions with alcohol.”